Father Raymond Gravel, outspoken social activist, dies

Father Raymond Gravel, a well-known Quebec priest and social activist, has died of cancer.

Well-known priest was a progressive force in the Catholic Church, one-time Bloc Québécois MP

Father Raymond Gravel was a progressive force in the Catholic Church and an outspoken supporter of women's and gay rights.

Father Raymond Gravel, a well-known Catholic priest, an advocate for Quebec sovereignty and a social activist, has died.

Gravel died Monday morning at the age of 61 in a palliative care centre in the Lanaudière region.

He had lung cancer.

Gravel was born in St-Damien-de-Brandon, Que.

He served one term as the Bloc Québécois MP for Repentigny, before he was ordered by church authorities to choose between his priesthood or politics and returned to the pulpit.

He was a progressive force in the Catholic Church and an outspoken supporter of gay and women's rights.

At one point Gravel called the Vatican's opposition to same-sex marriages "discriminatory, hurtful and offensive."

Gravel challenged the Catholic Church to adopt a more compassionate tone and get in touch with the beliefs of its adherents.

"The Church must evolve beyond the language of interdiction and condemnations," he wrote in an open letter dated April 23, 1999. "Such language only proves, once again, to the entire world just how disconnected the Church is from reality."

His views, however, were by no means universally shared by his fellow Catholics, and Gravel at one point launched a $500,000 defamation lawsuit against an anti-abortion website.

Gravel personally opposed abortion except in cases of rape, but he said he also opposed rules and regulations that "infantilized" women.

Gravel denounced PQ secular charter

He defended Canadian abortion pioneer Dr. Henry Morgentaler when anti-abortion groups demanded Morgentaler's Order of Canada be rescinded.

Even while he was ill, Gravel commented on public affairs – taking a strong stand against the Parti Québécois government's proposed secular charter, which would have banned the wearing of overt religious symbols by civil servants.

His illness also helped lead him to a sympathetic view of so-called "dying with dignity" legislation.

"I understand why those suffering can ask to die... I'm a believer, but if I ever decide that I want to die, don't tell me what God will do to me. I work it out with Him on the other side."

Gravel's death 'a great loss'

Gregory Baum, a member of Gravel’s parish and retired professor of religious studies at McGill University, called the priest's death a "great loss for the Church and Quebec as a whole."

"He was a dedicated priest and helper and servant and supporter of poor people and excluded people," Baum told CBC Radio's Homerun

When asked about Gravel's legacy, Baum said it was the example he set with his own life.

"His legacy is that, if Catholicism is interpreted in a new way following the Second Vatican Council, it is a relevant message for Quebec society and has much to contribute.  This is what he showed in his own life and this is what he wanted people to see in his life," Baum said.